In New Delhi’s satellite city of Gurgaon, artist Bharti Kher’s studio is split between two adjacent three-storey residences. One houses her office, where she executes her finer work, while the other is a workshop where fibreglass and metals are blown and cast.
Her office is on the top floor. A discarded branch of The Waq Tree (2009), which was exhibited at Art Basel last year, lies on the ground floor. It is a tree of life that bears pale-coloured gargoyle heads instead of fruits. Going up the stairway, we see sari-clad women diligently pasting bindis—the artist’s leitmotif—on mirrors and coloured boards. The cheerful women at work evoke a village welfare scheme. But then there are rooms stacked high with papers, packing, cardboard models. A chest of drawers takes up an entire wall on the first-floor landing, each with consignments of bindis in all imaginable colours and sizes. As we look up to see Kher waiting to receive us at the door of her office, we know this is no cottage industry.
Dressed down in cropped linen pants and loafers, she still stands tall. In the Indian art world, she is the woman of the moment: A couple of weeks ago, her life-sized sculpture, The Skin Speaks a Language Not its Own (2006) created auction history in a sale by Sotheby’s London. The $1,493,947 (around Rs7 crore) it fetched is a record price for a work by any female contemporary Indian artist at auction. It surpasses the auction record for her husband Subodh Gupta, who is beyond dispute India’s best known contemporary artist. With this, Kher becomes the most expensive Indian contemporary artist at auction ever, after the London-based Raqib Shaw.
The sculpture is awe-inspiring in its scale and detailing. It portrays a female Indian elephant brought to her knees in a seemingly untenable position. Starting from the centre of her forehead, every fold of her skin has been meticulously contoured with a whirling array of sperm-shaped bindis. As Kher settles down on a couch, she is aware that she has brought two archetypal cliches of India—the elephant and the bindi—together to create a work that transcends India and places her firmly on the global art radar.
Trained as a painter at Newcastle Polytechnic in the UK, Kher has extended her practice to include collage, sculpture, photography, video and assemblage. Her sensibility prompted prestigious galleries such as Nature Morte in New Delhi, Hauser & Wirth in London, Emmanuel Perrotin in Paris and Jack Shainman in New York, to show her work.
(clockwise from top) Kher in her backyard with a fibreglass cast of Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholy, Sanguine (2009), which was part of Hauser & Wirth’s outdoor exhibition in London till June (Priyanka Parashar/ Mint); The Skin Speaks a Language Not its Own (2006)(Courtesy Sotheby’s); and Indra’s Net Mirror 2(2010) (Courtesy Hauser & Wirth).
For Kher, the bindi is an oxymoron—condensing male sexuality and female adornment; forging links between the real and spiritual worlds in accordance with Hindu mythology. It is emblematic of her work in general, which is forever addressing paradoxes. Her human sculptures are beautiful, as sensual as Rodin’s. But they are also macabre. One view of Arione (2004), for instance, is a somewhat appealing Amazonian woman. But from another angle she looks half-beast, with a hoof in place of a leg. Hybrids and contrasting identities are a common thread in her work.
Born and brought up in the UK, Kher has lived and worked in India since 1993. She fell in love with Gupta while on a post-college trip to visit her extended family in 1992. She had only been to India once before that. They married and Kher, now 41, has two children, aged 7 and 11. Being married to an artist means that there are no off-topics at home. Art and art markets are dinner-table talk. And though it is too early to tell, Kher thinks that her seven-year-old daughter Lola has inherited the art gene.
Kher has often suffered from too biographical a reading of her work. Several critics have interpreted her part beast-part woman figures as reflecting her own identity crises. Stirring sugar into cups of Earl Grey tea, she suggests that is a lazy reading. “It’s been almost 20 years that I moved. That’s half of my life really. So when people ask me if I feel at home, if I feel displaced, I don’t know what they want me to say,” she says in a British accent watered down over the years.
Her status as a reverse emigré accentuates her sense of wonderment. She confesses that she continues to be amazed by Indian regional television and the sheer variety of its programming. She’d discovered the bindi in 1996, when she’d seen a woman wearing a sperm-shaped one. After several visits to Old Delhi’s wholesale market, Sadar Bazaar, she found her bindi supplier. Her large-scale works have now made her the supplier’s biggest client. But she has never worn one.
Kher is not necessarily a feminist but female identity is a strong part of her work. So when I ask her if the part about her being India’s highest selling “female” contemporary artist irritates her, she nods, putting down her cup of tea. “I’m not irritated. I’m a woman and that doesn’t irritate me. The truth is that there are fewer successful women artists who’ve reached this stage financially,” she says.
Kher exudes a sense of self-awareness about where she has reached today, and how hard she has worked for it. A desk stacked with files that spill over, a phone that always rings, and administrative duties befitting a small manufacturing unit bear witness to it. Two years ago, she used to do two-three projects a year. The number now stands at 15-20. She put a lot of work “out there”, as she says, between 2003 and 2006. Things started to click, people started to notice her bindis. Most importantly, Hauser & Wirth, arguably among the best five galleries in the world, signed her on in 2008. Kher is now working towards an upcoming solo in Bangalore’s GallerySke, another solo in Paris’ Pompidou Centre, and a couple of shows in the US.
Part of Kher’s international appeal is her highly developed sense of narrative. Two years after Arione, she made Arione’s Sister: a pale green nude figure, but again with one hoof. The Waq Tree, too, is a follow-on from her Solarium Series. More recently, she has appropriated Tibetan singing bowls, antique globes collected from around the world and European vintage mirrors to string tales. Language is part of her artwork. Like the title The Skin Speaks… prompts the viewer to look beyond the elephant’s form, to ponder her skin’s texture. Bharti Kher is, more than anything, a storyteller artist.